Thursday, April 24, 2014
By SUDARSAN RAGHAVAN The Washington Post
NAIROBI, Kenya — The bloody siege of an upscale mall by Islamist militants ended Tuesday with five of the attackers dead and 11 taken into custody, amid fears that the death toll of more than 60 civilians could substantially rise when authorities begin searching through the wreckage.
A Kenyan soldier runs through a corridor on an upper floor of the Westgate Mall shortly before an explosion was heard, in Nairobi, Kenya, on Tuesday.
The Associated Press
Family members outside the Nairobi City Mortuary mourn the death of loved ones killed in the Westgate Mall attack on Tuesday.
"As a nation, our head is bloodied but unbowed," Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said in a televised address, declaring three days of mourning. "We have ashamed and defeated our attackers."
But the assault at the Westgate Premier Shopping Mall could also bolster the image of al-Shabab, the al-Qaida-linked Somali militia that asserted responsibility for the attack, at a time when it has been weakened by a loss of territory in Somalia and violent infighting. The 10 to 15 attackers managed to prolong the standoff in the international spotlight for four days, highlighting their demands for Kenya to withdraw its troops from Somalia. Such a feat, analysts said, could give the militia more credibility in global jihadist circles, attracting more funds and recruits to fuel its ambitions to become a significant international jihadist group.
The storming of the mall Saturday has already been widely praised on jihadist websites and social media, according to the SITE Monitoring Service, which tracks statements of extremist groups. It was the deadliest attack in Kenya since the U.S. Embassy bombing in 1998 killed more than 200.
"The Westgate mall attack demonstrates that al-Shabab remains a significant regional threat and presumably will mean more support from radical sympathizers," said E. J. Hogendoorn, Africa deputy program director for the International Crisis Group, a respected think tank. "Whether this will arrest the group's decline remains to be seen. The group has been weakened and this is an attempt to reverse that trend."
But analysts said a backlash against the group was also possible, especially if Somalis living in Kenya and elsewhere in the region now face greater scrutiny from authorities. The militia's popularity in Somalia was already waning, and Somali religious leaders denounced it this month as having no place in Islam.
The official death toll of 62 civilians and six members of the security forces was reduced by one civilian Tuesday. But Kenyatta said three floors of the mall collapsed during the operation and that bodies were trapped under the rubble. The Kenyan Red Cross said as many as 65 civilians reported to have been inside the mall remain missing, suggesting that the death toll could rise sharply in the days ahead.
Kenyatta said he could not confirm reports by Kenya's foreign minister that American and British citizens were among the heavily armed attackers. But he promised a full accounting of what happened, adding that experts are conducting forensic tests to determine the nationalities of the assailants.
It also remained uncertain whether the security operation was completely over: Government officials said security forces were still combing the mall for any explosives or booby traps left by the militants. Witnesses said some of the attackers may have slipped out in the chaos, and the Kenyan government said 10 suspects were detained at the airport.
Many analysts said that such a well-planned attack could not have taken place without a network of accomplices and financiers inside Kenya.
"These cowards will meet justice as will their accomplices and patrons, wherever they are," Kenyatta said.
The announcement that the siege was over came only hours after al-Shabab, whose name in Arabic means "The Youth," claimed that its fighters had the upper hand. A parallel tussle had unfolded on Twitter between the militants and the government, as each side tried to counter the other's version of events.
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